Astrobiologists have developed a new term, “lyfe,” that has broader criteria on what it means to be alive on other planets. The previously used, Darwinian carbon-based definition for being alive has been criticized because it does not consider extra-terrestrial possibilities in extreme conditions. This distinction allows for more freedom when discovering what may be living in the context of other planets where the biological components are likely different. 

The four criteria for something to be considered lyfe are: it gets energy from its environment; has potential for exponential growth; is self regulating in a changing environment; and can maintain information about its environment. While a lot of these factors are true for life on Earth, organisms considered lyfe do not need to have the same energy source and water reliance as humans. Lynn Rothchild, an astrobiologist from NASA’s Ames Research Centre says that theoretically, “There could be organisms floating in Titan’s atmosphere that essentially drink petrol to sustain themselves.”

With increasing NASA expeditions, reassessments are of growing importance for the area of study. This criteria allows studies to assume that lyfe forms may exist on Mars, Jupiter’s moon, and Saturn’s moon, the places where expeditions are planned for. The temperatures of these planets are incredibly extreme, with Saturn’s moon, Titan’s surface being -179 degrees Celsius. If scientists keep searching for life forms that live in Earth-like environments with comparable chemical make ups, they probably won’t succeed, and may miss alternative forms. 

This new idea also encourages scientists to think more broadly governing what is alive, outside of existing astrobiology. Genetic information and physical boundaries are among other aspects of life that are tested with this definition of lyfe. Since it is now possible for scientists to artificially store genetic strands in lieu of DNA, it  is heavily debated if viruses are a life form, as they have both DNA and RNA. This shows that there are some very small factors that can distinguish what is alive, and perhaps even on earth it is time for a re-examination. Physical boundaries in the form of a body are also often thought of as crucial to standard life. This notion could also be dismissed in forms of lyfe, where the planet is probably the only physical boundary, an idea currently foreign to humans.

Distinguishing lyfe is regarded as imperative because it will prevent scientists from ignoring what is right in front of them in all endeavours of discovery. Philosophers often try to broaden what it means to be alive, but usually with little success. This new terminology allows for scientists to recognize that terrestrial life on earth is still well understood and contained, yet allows for analysis of other possibilities as well, a framework that is useful when dealing with long-lasting definitions that are seldom changed. Establishing lyfe can increase the findings on other planets and allow astrobiologists to progress their studies in an effort for us all to further understand the universe in its entirety, outside of the human gaze. 

For Times Media Mexico
Isabella Fix

Isabella Fix is a freelance writer whose work focuses on social and environmental issues.